Challenge #02081-E257: Young Game, Old Players
The thing most deserving of both respect and fear in equally large amounts is an old man in a place where they often die young. -- Anon Guest
Oort Herding is a game for the young. The ability to weave through free-floating bodies in the depths of absolute darkness, to spot a dirty snowball before the Hungry Caterpillar does, to do the necessary gravitational kicks to cometary objects and get out of the way in the correct direction, all needs fast reflexes and quick minds.
Or, if you ask some, strategy.
They tell legends about him. The only old Oort Herder in Galactic Space. Most of the others call him 'Grampa', but they do so with ingrained respect. Because they know. They know how slow reflexes and moments of inattention can cause the regular early retirement or the euphemistic kind where they're lucky to have some remains interred somewhere. For someone to work as an Oort Herder into their forties, into their fifties... Grampa had to have an edge over anyone else who had to quit the occupation.
Grampa was edging into his sixties, now. Grey hairs and wrinkles clearly evident clear across the room, and though many Oort Herders paid into his tab, Lyl was one to ask if she could share his booth and ask him an important question.
"Can you teach me what you know?" she asked.
Grampa looked up at her, standing nervously at the edge of his personal space. Clearly afraid of both answers. He sized her up from tip to toe and, "I think I can guess, but... why do you want to learn?" He gestured at the empty seat, inviting her in.
She sidled in and sat as if she didn't want to infect the chair with her presence. "I'm not... I'm not clever. I can read, but I can't write. Not well enough to earn. I can draw a little, but I'm... not an artist. I can talk, but I'm not worth listening to. I know enough maths to get by and... I'm just not good at anything else. And... I'm getting older. I nearly slipped a couple of times, already. It's... It's ride or die time. And I'd rather not die."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-six. Nearly washed up in Herder terms. I'd rather live for a while, you know? Retire to some place where I can grow things and do what I like when I like."
Grampa smiled. "That's the dream. Maybe grow water plants with your own haul..." He smiled at the vision, ordered a share platter he'd certainly never have to pay for. "You willing to keep the secret until you meet another like you? Not let the rest of these reckless assholes get it?"
Lyl thought about what the fast and stupid would do with a secret like Grampa's. The niche they occupied would soon be overflowing with lazy assholes who would class Oort Herding as a doddle and therefore a nothing job. A hobby. "Let the reckless assholes be reckless. I aim to make this my career."
They spat on their palms and shook.
"Right. You can ride with me a while. Put your rig in my drydock until you got everything you need. You stay with me, you learn what I teach. 'S all I ask."
"Done and done."
Grampa rode the mainstreams, where the quick or the dead snapped up smaller comet chunks. But what he did was make a conglomerate out of them. The Hungry Caterpillar on his rig had been souped up to be fast and dirty, turning all intersecting objects into a chunk of dirty ice roughly the size of a bus. That was then towed behind on carbon nanotube line, where a few little ion jets kept it at an angle to Grampa's rig. He also had a complicated algorithm that kept track of all moving bodies on an intersect vector and steered away from them.
He wasn't Oort Herding. He was Oort Trawling. And it was how he stayed alive without much in the way of spectacular skills.
Lyl spent two years learning all the subtle differences, and another earning the Time it took to upgrade her rig. In less than five more years, she was a legend, too.
They called her 'Mama', and when she gained a few more grey hairs, they would call her 'Gram'. She rarely had to pay her tab since the eager young Oort Herders were glad to pay for her account. Those who could retire as Oort Herders and look for other jobs did. Those who didn't make it were sad losses, and joined the local Wall of Names.
But she always kept an eye on the older ones. Looking for someone like her. Someone who was older than the rest, and looking worried, and a little bit in awe, and hopeful for an answer. Someone else who had to have a career, here, where there were few indeed who ever got old.
[Image (c) Can Stock Photo / diebar]
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